Oscar: Physical Transformation–De Niro in Raging Bull

Robert De Niro gained fifty-six pounds to play the gluttonous Jake LaMotta in Scorsese’s biopic, Raging Bull, forcing the production to shut down for four months to allow the actor reach the goal of 225 pounds required for the role.

LaMotta himself supervised De Niro’s food regime and training for the prizefighting scenes.

James Coco received Academy recognition, Best Supporting Actor nomination, for playing a hysterically insecure overweight actor in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson also allowed himself to look bloated in order to play convincingly the aging, amorous astronaut in “Terms of Endearment, opposite Shirley MacLaine.

Nicholson also transformed himself in look, accent and line delivery as the mafia don in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor.

Russell Crowe

Crowe gained considerable weight for “The Insider,” then lost it for “Gladiator.” To impersonate the celeb-prizefighter in “Ali,” Will Smith not only gained weight but also changed his entire posture, physical gestures, and behavioral manners.

Rene Zellweger received considerable attention, and first Oscar nomination, for Bridget Jones’ Diary, for which she gained weight the old-fashioned way, by eating lots of chocolate and pizzas.

Art and Technique of Disguise

Based on a lengthy and honorable theatrical tradition, the art of disguise encourages stage players to exploit mimicry and makeup as forms of sensationalism and attention-grabbing.  In film, too, heavy makeup and onscreen aging have are embraced by actors to impress the Academy members.

Emil Jannings, the very first Best Actor winner, changed identities from a former Russian general to a Hollywood extra in “The Way of All Flesh.” Fredric March’s makeup transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was of course necessary, contributing to the overall effectiveness of the film itself. March’s makeup man was the first to be acknowledged in his Oscar acceptance speech.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix had aged considerably during the thirty-year-span of “Cimarron, the 1933 Best Picture winner.

In the biopic, Mrs. Parkington,  a story spanning half-a-century, multiple Oscar nominee (and winner for Mrs. Miniver), Greer Garson progressed from a boarding-house slave to a wealthy matriarch.

Peter O’Toole

Peter O’Toole changed identities in The Ruling Class with the effortless facility of changing hats. O’Toole played a man who, after the death of his father, becomes the Earl of Gurney, but has enough money and persuasion powers to make people believe he’s Jesus Christ, only to change identities again and become Jack the Ripper.

Grotesque Men

In 1980, two of the Oscar front-running Best Pictures, Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” dealt with grotesque human beings.

The distinguished British actor John Hurt received a Best Actor nod (his second nomination) for playing John Merrick, a hideously deformed man who becomes a freak show for the upper class in turn-of-the century England.

Tom Hanks in Big

In “Big,” Tom Hanks played a boy who, frustrated by the restrictions imposed on his age group, wakes up with the body of a thirty-year-old man blessed with a twelve-year-old sensibility. Hanks received the first of his two consecutive Oscars for “Philadelphia,” as a dying person with AIDS, and another lead nomination for “Cast Away,” which closed production so that Hanks can lose one third of his frame (0ver 50 pounds) to play convincingly the second part of the story.

Deglamorizing Women

Attractive leading ladies and movie stars have been rewarded for deglamorizing their good looks and for their willingness to appear drab and frumpy. In recent years, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Rene Zellweger (supporting winner for “Cold Mountain”) have joined the distinguished company of many vet stars.

In “Now, Voyager,” Bette Davis wore padding on her legs, donned thick glasses, and pulled her hair back tight. Olivia de Havilland played an ugly duckling in “The Heiress,” and not a particularly attractive woman in “Hold Back the Dawn.” Joan Crawford played a waitress in a greasy-spoon restaurant in “Mildred Pierce.”

Grace Kelly won the Best Actress for “The Country Girl,” as an embittered, humiliated wife, wearing the most unflattering wardrobe in her career. That same year, Kelly flaunted some of Edith Head’s most stylish dresses in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder.”

Cher in Silkwood and Moonstruck

Cher was deglamorized as the lesbian-laborer roommate of as Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep)  in Silkwood, for which she received her first nod, a Best Supporting Actress nomination, indication the industry’s new perception of her as a serious actress, rather than singer-entertainer.

And Cher received the Best Actress Oscar four years later for Norman Jewison’s romantic comedy, Moonstruck, in which she transformed herself effectively from an “ugly duckling” (a working class femme working in a bakery) to a beautiful and desirable woman, courted by Nicolas Cage.